Driving California's Sierra Nevada

Drive up into the lofty Sierra Nevada, which conservationist John Muir called ‘The Range of Light.’ Here you can witness earth-shaking waterfalls, hug towering trees, clamber up granite domes and camp out in high-country meadows where wildflowers bloom.

This article is an excerpt from the thorough itinerary in our California Trips book, written by local expert authors Sara Benson, Nate Cavalieri and Beth Kohn.

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley. Image by Raido Kaldma / CC BY 2.0.Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley. Image by Raido Kaldma / CC BY 2.0

Yosemite National Park

Arriving in Yosemite National Park, pull over at Tunnel View for your first look at Yosemite Valley, which has inspired painters, poets, naturalists and adventurers for centuries. Spread below you are the pine forests and meadows of the valley floor, with the sheer face of El Capitan rising on the left, and in the distance straight ahead, iconic granite Half Dome.

From the bottom looking up, this dramatic valley cut by the meandering Merced River is song-inspiring, and not just for birds: rippling meadow grasses; tall pines; cool, impassive pools reflecting granite monoliths; and cascading, glacier-cold whitewater ribbons.

Start inside the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, with its thought-provoking history and nature displays and free Spirit of Yosemite film screenings. At the nearby Yosemite Museum, Western landscape paintings are hung beside Native American baskets and beaded clothing.

The valley’s famous waterfalls are thunderous cataracts in May, but mere trickles by late July. Triple-tiered Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest, while Bridalveil Fall is hardly less impressive. A strenuous, often slippery staircase beside Vernal Fall leads you, gasping, right to the top, where rainbows pop in clouds of mist.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park. Image by Ray Bouknight / CC BY 2.0.Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park. Image by Ray Bouknight / CC BY 2.0

Leave Yosemite Valley behind and escape to the high country along Tioga Rd, which follows a 19th-century wagon road and Native American trading route. Make your way to Tuolumne Meadows, the Sierra Nevada’s largest subalpine meadow, with fields of wildflowers, bubbling streams, ragged granite peaks and cooler temperatures at an elevation of 8600ft.

Backtrack toward Yosemite Valley to head-spinning Glacier Point (7214ft), which practically puts you at eye level with Half Dome. To get away from the crowds, hike a little way down the Panorama Trail, just south of the main viewpoint.

Next, drive south of the valley toward Wawona and drop by the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, with its covered bridge, pioneer-era buildings and historic Wells Fargo office. In summer you can take a short, bumpy stagecoach ride and really feel like you’re living in the past.

Giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove. Image by Miles Sabin / CC BY-SA 2.0.Giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove. Image by Miles Sabin / CC BY-SA 2.0

Wander giddily around Mariposa Grove, home to the 1800-year-old Grizzly Giant and 500 other giant sequoias that tower above your head. Popular nature trails wind through the trees and are best enjoyed during the early morning or evening.

This next part of the itinerary takes you through Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, a 120-mile, three-hour trip from Yosemite.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

North of the Big Stump entrance station in Grant Grove Village, turn left and wind downhill to General Grant Grove, where you’ll see some of the park’s landmark giant sequoia trees along a paved path. You can walk right through the Fallen Monarch, a massive, fire-hollowed trunk that’s done duty as a cabin, hotel, saloon and horse stable.

Fallen Monarch. Image by Jami Dwyer / CC BY-SA 2.0.Fallen Monarch. Image by Jami Dwyer / CC BY-SA 2.0

Take Hwy 180 down to Kings River, where roaring whitewater ricochets off the granite cliffs of North America’s deepest canyon, technically speaking. Pull over partway down at Junction View overlook for an eyeful, then keep rolling along the river to Cedar Grove Village. East of the village, Zumwalt Meadow is the place for spotting birds, mule deer and black bears.

Next, try hugging the trees in Giant Forest, a 3-sq-mile grove protecting the park’s most gargantuan specimens. Park off Wolverton Rd and walk downhill to reach the world’s biggest living tree, the General Sherman Tree, which towers 275ft into the sky. With sore arms and sticky sap fingers, you can meander through many of the forested trails nearby.

Navigating over 700 hairpin turns, it’s a winding 1½-hour drive up to the glacially sculpted Mineral King Valley (7500ft), a 19th-century silver-mining camp and lumber settlement, and later a mountain retreat. Your final destination is just over a mile past the ranger station, where the valley unfolds all of its hidden beauty, and hikes to granite peaks and alpine lakes beckon.